Though none of you are skeptics (?), we all meet a skeptic or two in our lives. Below is an engaging series of conversations between a skeptic and a believer regarding fundamental issues of faith and G-d.
The catalyst for this dialogue is the provocative, and seriously misunderstood topic of Moshiach and Redemption (Geulah). Much controversy surrounds this issue built on misconceptions and stereotypes regarding the Jewish view on this theme. Yet, the discussion of such a critical issue inevitable touches upon many of our axiomatic beliefs, and challenges us all to examine our innermost feelings about life, its meaning, and our personal hopes for the future.
Before reading this first dialogue, ask yourself the question: Do you believe that things in your life can really change? Or are you of the belief that the more things change the more they stay the same.
We hope you are stimulated by this series, and as always welcome your feedback, comments, rebuttals and anything you wish to share…
Conversation One: It’s not going to happen. Universal brotherhood, swords into plowshares, the eradication of evil… give me a break!
Conversation Three: Do you think the best salesman in the world can sell his product to every human being on earth?
Conversation Four:What’s wrong with a secular “Moshiach”? If, as you claim, we can do better, let’s do just that. Let us work for world peace, human rights, universal literacy, a cure for cancer, solutions for hunger in Africa…
Conversation Five: One of the misconceptions that people have about the coming of Moshiach is that they view it as a radical, earth-shaking event.
Conversation Six: If humanity has a destiny and goal, if history is the evolution toward a state of harmony and perfection, why the need for the individual human being you call Moshiach?
Conversation Seven: If Moshiach is a king then we’re back to totalitarian rule, to monarchs who reign by Divine license. I thought we got over that a few centuries ago.
Conversation Eight: If it’s as simple as all that, if all we have to do is open our eyes to a truth that is staring us in the face, why hasn’t it already happened?
Conversation Nine: Everyone is for world peace. But within the miniature universe that is man, ‘‘World Wars’’ are raging. How can we hope to create a harmonious universe if we are forever battling our own selves?
Conversation Ten:You say that G-d created me in His image – but you apply this only to some deeper, quintessential self which desires only good.
Conversation Eleven: All we’re doing is reinforcing our instinctive visions of reality.You believe, I don’t. Of course, we each have logical arguments to support our positions. But ultimately, it’s a question of faith.
Conversation Twelve: Your Moshiach idea was beginning to look no more ominous than a touching bit of optimism for our ill-fated world. But then I came across something that reinforced my first impression of it.
Conversation Thirteen: If what you say is true, if, underneath it all, the selfish animal we call ‘‘man’’ possesses a soul that is essentially and inherently good, why have all attempts to uncover it failed so dismally?
Conversation Fourteen: I think that you are doing injustice to the idea of Moshiach with your unyielding orthodoxy. Why don’t you take the gist of what ‘‘Moshiach’’ stands for and discard its out-of-date packaging?
Skeptic: It’s not going to happen.
Believer: Why not?
Skeptic: Universal brotherhood, swords into plowshares, the eradication of evil… give me a break!
Believer: Again, why not?
Skeptic: Humanity is why not. Look at its bloodstained history, look at what’s going on today. Let’s face it, man is a selfish animal. His only true goal in life is self-fulfillment, and he’ll trample and destroy everything in his path to get what he wants.
Believer: And such, in your view, is the basic nature of every human being? Including yourself, for example?
Skeptic: Of course! I’m just as selfish as anyone else. I try to be decent, but I know that I’ve hurt and wronged others in the course of my life.
Believer: So this is how you see yourself – as this evil monster…
Skeptic: No – as I said, I try to do the right thing. But my selfish instincts often get the better of me.
Believer: But deep down, in your heart of hearts, you know that you can do better…
Skeptic: Okay. Let us say that if I truly put my mind and will to it, I can make my behavior consistent with what I know to be just and correct. How would that change anything? There are another five billion people on our planet!
Believer: Aren’t we employing a double standard here? “I’m basically good, but everyone else is evil.”
Skeptic: And if most people are essentially good, where has that gotten us in the last few thousand years? Even a single evil act can do a lot of damage. A single madman can undo the positive accomplishments of many well-meaning individuals.
Believer: Why not the other way around? Why not a single positive act having a far-reaching influence? If one Hitler can murder millions and wreak havoc on the lives of hundreds of millions of others, why not a Moshiach who kindles the latent good in every human being? Basically what you’re saying is that evil is more powerful than good.
Skeptic: I would like it to be otherwise. It ought to be otherwise. But it seems to be that way.
Believer: But you yourself said that you feel that the good within you is more powerful than your selfish drives, that if you believed it would make a real difference, you could overpower them. If one person can do it, every person can do it.
Skeptic: Theoretically, you are right, but I don’t see it happening. It’s just not realistic.
Believer: You know, good and evil are often compared to light and darkness. Think of it this way: darkness, no matter how intimidating, is not a thing or force. It is merely the absence of light. So light need not combat and overpower darkness in order to displace it – where light is, darkness is not. In the same way, evil is no match for good. Good is the basic state of human nature–you, me, and everyone else sense this to be true of ourselves – whereas the “evil” in us is merely the obscuring and distortion of this truth. The moment your true self comes to light, the darkness melts away.
Skeptic: That’s a beautiful way of putting it, and you are correct in saying that most of us view their own selves this way. But to say that there will come a day when every human being will be inspired to make that move… As I said, it’s simply not realistic.
Believer: I think that your problem with the idea of Moshiach is not a rational one, or one of personal prejudice. You seem to agree that my world view makes perfect sense. And you certainly have nothing to lose and everything to gain from a harmonious and perfect world. It’s just a certain internal block, a habitual distrust of your fellow man…
Skeptic: Well, I do live in New York City…
Believer: You agree with everything I say, except for the conclusion.
Skeptic: You’re right. I just don’t buy it.
Skeptic: The more we discuss the Moshiach issue, the more it seems to me that it all boils down to a matter of perspective.
Believer: What do you mean?
Skeptic: The believer sees the world as an ordered and purposeful creation. Life is a process toward some end-goal, history is a journey with a destination. Evil, chaos and suffering don’t fit in – so they’re either some terrible mistake, or obstacles to be surmounted as part of the Divine plan. A world community united to serve the common good – or, as you might call it, Moshiach – is the most natural thing in the world. Today’s world is the surrealistic one, Moshiach’s world is the sane reality.
If that’s the way you see it, then obviously everything points in that direction. All progress and improvement that we witness in our world is part of this cosmic progression to a messianic utopia. Anything bad that happens is but a temporary and superficial regression in our climb towards redemption, or perhaps the final gasps of the doomed forces of evil.
Believer: And the skeptic?
Skeptic: The skeptic sees the world as a hostile jungle in which right fades before might and the good die young. He is unabashedly out for number one and expects no different of his fellow man. If he meets a selfless individual he is awestruck and puts him on a pedestal or in a museum. He doesn’t think that the world is headed anywhere in particular.
Believer: And which scenario, in your view, is more consistent with the objective facts?
Skeptic: They are both consistent with the objective facts. That’s my whole point. Depending on where you stand, on what your gut feeling is, you will interpret history and your personal experiences accordingly.
Believer: Is the skeptic not moved by the velvet revolution in Eastern Europe? By the rise of freedom and democracy throughout the world? By the dismantling of nuclear arms, tanks converted into tractors, military aircraft airlifting food to the hungry?
Skeptic: Is the believer not disheartened by the slaughter in Bosnia? By the crime rate in Detroit? By the percentage of husbands who cheat on their wives? Again, if you see the world as a purposeful enterprise, the evening news and the history books tell of advancement and improvement, of currents of progression towards the messianic ideal under the surface of a still unperfected world. But if you view life as a series of disjointed, arbitrary events, the selfsame facts describe a jungle in which good things also sometimes happen.
Believer: But I think you’re missing a crucial point. There’s a major difference between the two perspectives you describe. One relies on data, on the “hard facts.” The other makes its case by examining psychohistory of mankind, the deeper changes in the way that we think and feel which have been developing since the dawn of the human experience.
Believer: Violent crime has no ideology – it is perpetrated, for the most part, by individuals who grew up in despair and are out for a dollar or a fix. There is no National Association of Child Abusers. There is no Nobel Prize for the year’s most courageous hatemonger.
Things were not always this way. Four thousand years ago, sacrificing a young virgin was a sacred practice by the world’s leading religions. Incest was not only legal – it was a sign of royal blood. Only a few centuries ago, destroying a city for its gold was an act of heroism, to be chiseled in stone for posterity. Closer to our time, slavery was commonplace, train robbers were folk heroes, torture was a means of criminal investigation, women were the property of their husbands – all this in the world’s most enlightened countries. Our grandfathers remember when war was a noble calling, romanticized by the world’s leading writers and artists.
The human race is maturing morally. Nothing emphasizes this more than the fall of totalitarianism in the former communist block: the sheer moral force of ideas proved more powerful than tanks and the gulag, bringing freedom to hundreds of millions.
Again, I am not speaking about the way people act, but about the way they think and feel – what the global consensus was and now is on these issues. The atrocities committed in Bosnia are as vicious as the pillage and rape in the wars of ancient Greece, but today the world is united in its outrage.
Skeptic: Does any of this make any real difference? If a person dies violently,
G-d forbid, is it better that he be killed by a crazed junkie rather than by a “noble” soldier reveling in the sublime glory of war? He is no less dead and no less mourned by his loved ones. If we want a better world, the “hard facts” (as you call them) have to change, not just some abstract “collective conscious” of mankind.
Believer: You’re absolutely right. Ultimately, what matters is the way people act. For the world of Moshiach to become a reality, all evil most be vanquished, both the behavioral evil and the “ideological” evil. But if we are to make sense (or nonsense) out of history, we must look at the more underlying causes for human behavior: the attitudes of society as a whole. When that changes, the ground is ripe for the real changes to take place.
Look at what it takes to be “politically correct” today. In more and more parts of the globe, anyone who wishes to get elected or to stay in power had better espouse family values, democracy, equality, human rights, social justice…
Skeptic: Yeah, and if you want to be considered smart, just agree with everyone. You take these politicians seriously? Ninety-five percent of them are hypocrites!
Believer: And that proves my point more than anything else. If they were sincere but unpopular, it would mean that they are men of great integrity but that society is in a sorry state. But when the politicians sound too good to be true, you know that the man on the street is ready and receptive for some real changes in his life.
Skeptic: Okay, so in the year 2001 the mind and heart of humanity is finally fertile ground for a real New World Order, not only one that unites against “naked aggression” when the price of oil is at stake. Your theory sounds great but, as I understand it, Moshiach is a lot more than a great theory—you actually expect it to happen. So where do we go from here? What happens next?
Believer: You tell me: What has to happen?
Skeptic: Well, first of all, everyone has to buy your story.
Believer: Do you buy it?
Skeptic: Whether or not I buy it is irrelevant—in order for it to happen, everyone has to buy it. As you pointed out, Moshiach would score very high on a Gallup poll—anyone who doesn’t want a world free of ignorance, hate and strife is crazy. But anyone who begins to act as if the world has already achieved this is even more crazy—try leaving your car unlocked in the South Bronx for five minutes. You have to figure out some way to convince everyone together.
Believer: That’s exactly what and who Moshiach is. A person with the vision and message to inspire all of humanity.
Skeptic: The ultimate salesman, eh? He knocks on your door with a “Let’s All Be Good” policy in his briefcase and signs you up in five fast-talking minutes flat. Do you think the best salesman in the world can sell his product to every human being on earth?
Believer: He doesn’t have to sell us on anything we don’t already understand and want. If anything, he is like the child who cries out “The emperor has no clothes,” causing everyone to snap out of their artificial, superimposed behavior and embrace the truth of their own convictions.
Skeptic: It seems that in our case the issue is far more complex than the simple fact of an unclothed emperor striding the streets. Throughout the generations, many “Moshiachs” have sounded their calls (or had a good PR man do so for them) for a better world, yet humanity did not instantaneously see the light.
Believer: You’re right in that it’s far more complex in our case, but the issue is, in fact, the same as in the story. Moshiach’s message, in a nutshell, is indeed that “The emperor has no clothes.”
Skeptic: Huh? What do you mean?
Believer: The emperor, of course, is G-d; the clothes are what He dresses up in when He wants to disguise Himself.
Skeptic: Well, does He or doesn’t He have clothes?
Believer: He does and He doesn’t. Just as in the story: the emperor is clothed—at least everyone acts as if he were clothed—as long as we choose to see things that way.
Skeptic: So how does G-d dress up—or appear to dress up?
Believer: He has all kinds of illusory clothes: chance, fate, the survival of the fittest, Murphy’s law, the Stock Exchange—all those things which give us the impression that the world is going everywhere at once and nowhere at all. G-d “dresses” Himself in these clothes. His involvement in history is shrouded in them—yet the meaning and purpose of it all is discernable just a scratch beneath the surface. The same is true on the individual level: life is a series of disjointed events—until one takes a deeper look. The moment we open our eyes, the “clothes” dissipate into thin air…
Skeptic: So we’re all going to have this great prophetic vision of G-d without His “clothes” and this will instantaneously transform us all into Boy Scouts…?
Believer: To perceive G-d as He is means many things on many levels. The most basic implication is that the true purpose of our lives will become as obvious as the fact of our being. The dumbest animal does not leap into fire. When man will openly perceive the purpose of his existence, he will be no more inclined to act against it than he is to destroy himself.
Skeptic: Until that kid comes along, I’m still locking my car.
Skeptic: But why bring G-d into the picture? What’s wrong with a secular “Moshiach”? If, as you claim, we can do better, let’s do just that. Let us work for world peace, human rights, universal literacy, a cure for cancer, argi-technological solutions for hunger in Africa…
Believer: Do you think that man can do it on his own?
Skeptic: Hardly, with or without G-d’s help. You’re the one who’s been saying that man is essentially good, that if we’ll all just wake up one morning with the determination to do better we will have a perfect world on our hands…
Believer: So let us exchange sides in this debate. Allow me to pursue your line of thinking for a while. How many people do you know who can work together for a higher cause? How long does it take for a “united” effort to brake into half a dozen factions? Sometimes it seems that the problem is that there are too many well-meaning people around, each with his own “Moshiach” – his own subjective vision of the ideal and how to get there…
Skeptic: Yet you say that history is a process leading to the perfect existence of Moshiach…
Believer: It is. But who is to define this process and the steps needed to move it along?
Skeptic: And evoking G-d will solve the problem? Hah! If you look at history, religion has been the cause of at least as much evil as good. Think of how many people have been killed and tortured in the name of “G-d” and an assortment of “Moshiachs”!
Believer: That, precisely, is my point. As long as man defines “good” and “evil” – whatever his intentions – he is inviting conflict with whoever doesn’t agree with his definition. If he or his potential audience are of a “religious” bent, he will undoubtedly attribute his idea of morality to G-d and set out on a crusade to destroy the world in order to save it.
Skeptic: So, will the real G-d please stand up!
Believer: That’s exactly what G-d does when He sends Moshiach: He shows Himself in a way that leaves no room for doubt. Moshiach, simply stated, is one individual who brings about a unanimous recognition of the true G-d, thereby uniting all of humanity to work for the common good – a good that they all accept to be the true ideal, as defined by the Supreme Architect of Existence Himself.
Skeptic: You’re assuming that such an absolute truth exists. I question that very premise.
Believer: If it doesn’t, then the whole concept of a purpose to life has no objective meaning – “Moshiach” becomes five billion different individual fantasies. If one feels that existence is purposeful (and I am convinced that, deep down, every human being feels this way), then there must be a transcendent reality which defines this purpose and implants it in the human soul. In other words, a creator, an author of history, G-d. A G-d who created man in His image, as opposed to gods created by men in their images.
Skeptic: To believe in a purpose is one thing. There is a part to every individual that insists that his existence is meaningful, and that our world will (or at least ought to) amount to something worthwhile. But to believe in a G-d who handed down a particular set of instructions – that is a tremendous leap of faith.
Believer: A purpose cannot arise out of spontaneous bangs and random rearrangement of quarks…
Skeptic: How do you know? Many physicists believe that life, in all its complexity, may have resulted from just such confluence of random events over eons of time…
Believer: Without getting into a semantic argument over the probabilities of such an “accident,” let me say this: assuming it could happen, can you call the result a purpose? Why should I care about such a “purpose”? Why should I strive to uphold some “pattern” that has spontaneously emerged out of meaningless gibberish?
Skeptic: Because these are the laws which ensure our continued survival and well-being.
We’re all in the same boat. So society as whole comes up with certain institutions – family, education, charity, law enforcement, courts, international law–to promote the common good.
Believer: But why should I care about this boat? Why not do what I want as long as I can get away with it?
Skeptic: There is no getting away with it. Everything you do affects all of us and, ultimately, yourself.
Believer: By the time that “ultimately” comes about, I’ll be long gone. Say that I find that I can lead a luxurious and fulfilling life as a drug lord. Of course, I destroy the lives of inner city kids and causes old ladies to be mugged in broad daylight. But I’m living in a country estate surrounded by an electric fence and patrolled by my private security force. I have an army of lawyers to keep me out of jail and a charitable foundation to keep me respectable. By the time society collapses, I’d be resting comfortably under my designer tombstone…
Skeptic: What about your children?
Believer: Children? Why in the world should I have children? To keep “society” going another million years? As I said, if we feel that there is meaning to our lives, it is because a purposeful Creator has woven it into the very fabric of our souls.
Skeptic: Still, so what? Why should I care about what’s “woven into the very fabric of my soul” by a “purposeful Creator”?
Believer: If you don’t care, no “reason” will ever make you care. But you do care. The most frustrating thing about being a skeptic is trying to understand why you care. Well, the reason why you care is because you are inexorably bound to your mission in life. Because your individual role within G-d’s overall purpose in creation is what lies at your very essence.
Skeptic: It never fails. Whenever I get into a conversation with a believer it turns out that not only does he know all the answers to everything, he even knows me better than I know myself…
Skeptic: So when is this finally going to happen? At what point will the world suddenly be transformed into a Garden of Eden?
Believer: You know, one of the misconceptions that many people have about the coming of Moshiach is that they view it as a radical, earth-shaking event. The sky opens up, and this Divine being, whom no one has ever seen before, descends and instantaneously transforms the world. I think that this is a Christianization of the idea of Moshiach. Obviously, a world-view that sees the human being and the material world as intrinsically evil can envision the redemption only as a supernatural event, brought about by a supernatural redeemer.
The Jewish concept of the redemption is that it is a process rather than an event. A process in which the underlying unity and perfection of creation unfolds as the true essence of every created being is realized. The world, as G-d created it, is perfect. Despite the fragmentation and conflict we encounter, its diverse elements are united by an intrinsic harmony and unanimity of purpose. The era of Moshiach is a time when this underlying harmony will be readily perceivable.
Skeptic: And today, in the year 2001, we’re at the end of this process? Does the world look any less fragmented and conflict-ridden to you?
Believer: Absolutely. Think of all the areas in which layers of diversity are peeling away to reveal increasingly more unified realities at their core. Take, for example, physical science. When man first began to study the workings of his world, he identified many laws and principles which explained why things are the way they are. But the more he examined and tested these laws, the more they showed themselves to be but expressions of a more underlying set of laws—a simpler, more concise and less numerous set of laws; in turn, these laws, too, were narrowed down to more inclusive fundamentals. Today, the stated aim of modern physics is to uncover the Grand Unified Theory that would encapsulate all of natural phenomenon in a single formula.
The same is true in practically every other field. The economies of the world are grouping into common markets which are themselves becoming more and more integrated; the direction is toward a single global economy. Jet-age travel and the communications technologies are dismantling the barriers erected by culture and geography; we can already envision a time when all peoples of the world will comprise a single social unit.
The final frontier of divisiveness is that of the human character: here we are still in the dark ages of fragmentary thinking. “What’s in it for me” is still at the fore of our motivations. However, this is but the most external layer of the human self. If all aspects of creation ultimately reflect the unity and oneness of their Creator, how much more so the soul of man, which was formed in the image of G-d! Beneath our most external self and its narrow concept of self-fulfillment lies a deeper and truer self. A self that does not define itself in terms of the material and its gratifications, but in terms of its spiritual identity and quintessential function. On this level, self-fulfillment means the fulfillment of one’s raison d’etre, the purpose to which one was created. It means the deepening of the focus of one’s life from the superficial and divisive selfish “I” to an “I” that is defined in terms of the unified purpose of all creation.
Skeptic: And what about this “last frontier”? It seems to me that this is the greatest and most difficult challenge of all. We obviously still have a long way to go before humanity redifines its identity.
Believer: You’d be right if we were starting from scratch to build a better world. But this is an ongoing process, a process whose realization has been maturing as long as man has walked the earth.
Throughout the generations, man’s every positive act has been an assertion of the intrinsic goodness of G-d’s creation. The good which has been achieved has been accumulating, the light intensifying and the darkness fading away. We are therefore in the position of a “midget standing on the shoulders of a giant,” of a bricklayer setting the final brick of a magnificent mansion…
Skeptic: What about all the evil that has been perpetrated? Hasn’t that been “accumulating,” as well?
Believer: No. You can turn up the light but you cannot turn up the darkness – for the simple reason that darkness is not a “thing,” only the absence of light. So each positive deed brings us that much closer to perfection, whereas evil is transitory and of no enduring significance.
What I am trying to say is that the Redemption is a process whose realization has been maturing as long as man has walked the earth. The coming of Moshiach will not “change” the world any more than the final straw breaks the camel’s back or the 212th degree of heat boils the water in the kettle.
Skeptic: Nevertheless, when you speak of Moshiach you mean more than a gradual change for the better. You do speak of an “event,” of some point in time at which a certain individual, Moshiach, arrives on the scene and effects some very marked changes in the way things are.
Believer: Certainly. Let’s go back to that final straw or that final increment of heat. The transformation is achieved by the combined effect of all the stalks of straw in the load and all the calories of heat produced by the fire. And yet, it is that final cumulative increment that serves as the catalyst for the change to actually take place.
Skeptic: But why must it be this way? Why must we be in the dark, unable to truly see the fruits of our labor until the entire “process” is complete? You are forever comparing good and evil to light and darkness. So why can’t we actually see the light growing brighter and brighter? Why must darkness prevail until some “critical mass” of good has accumulated?
Believer: Ah, the dream of every man! To know everything, to make sense of it all, to see the pieces of the puzzle falling into place! But if each positive act on our part would translate immediately into a perceptible change for the better on the universal scale, would we be faced with any real choices on how to lead our lives? To do good and to refrain from evil would be as obvious as the need to eat and to protect oneself from danger. Man would be little more than a trained hamster who jumps through a hoop for the anticipated morsel or a cow who learns to avoid the electric fence.
G-d created man to be His “partner in creation,” not a humanoid robot who follows a predictable course through a programmed life. So he placed us in a world in which chance and haphazardness superimposes the order and meaning implicit in our lives. In such a world, we are truly partners to His endeavor, “creators” as He is a creator: our efforts to move the world toward the fulfillment of His plan in creation are products of our choice and volition. We choose whether to live our lives by instinctive reaction to the material reality, or to use our capacity for insight and abstraction to see beyond the surface reality to our underlying purpose and mission.
So this is the way it must be. Until the moment that the accomplishments of all generations of history culminate in the fulfillment of the Divine design, they must remain obscured by the veil of darkness and mundanity which conceals the accumulating light.
Skeptic: So who needs Moshiach?
Skeptic: If humanity has a destiny and goal, if history is the evolution toward a state of harmony and perfection, why the need for the individual human being called Moshiach?
Skeptic: Do you mind if I ask a rather simplistic question?
Believer: Those are usually the most difficult to address.
Believer: Because a simple question usually has a simple answer. And a simple answer is the most difficult answer to accept.
Skeptic: Anyway, here’s my question. Why are you always speaking of a future perfect world in terms of Moshiach, the person? If humanity has a destiny and goal, if history is the evolution toward a state of harmony and perfection, why the need for the individual human being you call Moshiach?
Believer: Look at the last 5,000 years of human experience: every major movement and instrument of change, positive or negative, beneficial or destructive, centered upon an individual. The religions which deeply affected the lives of hundreds of millions, the infamous wars and carnages which swept the earth, the movements on behalf of oppressed peoples, the great revolutions in philosophy, art and technology – all are identified with a specific individual. Always there was a leader who inspired and motivated his followers and whose influence ultimately extended beyond his community and his generation.
Skeptic: What you’re saying is that that’s the way we are, that this is an inescapable fact of human nature. But why are we this way? Is this the way we ought to be? Is it not a weakness on our part that we cannot do anything on our own, that we must be lead by the hand like small children?
Believer: That we are inspired by leaders does not mean that “we cannot do anything on our own.” No leader can he move us to something that we do not already desire on some level, or enable us to do things which we do not already possess the aptitude and ability for. It is we who are doing these things, things which we already wanted to do and were already capable of doing.
The role of the leader is that of a lamplighter. When the lamplighter approaches the lamp, all necessary elements to produce light are already present: the oil, the wick, the vessel designed to contain them and to keep the flame going. The lamplighter adds nothing of substance. He merely touches his flame to the wick, stimulating the release of the latent energy and luminary potential which the lamp contains.
Moshiach does not come to do the work of humanity. What he is is the spark that ignites the soul of every man and woman on earth. Moshiach is an individual who will kindle the potential good within each and every one of us into glowing reality.
Skeptic: But why must this “igniting spark” come from a human being? You say that the Torah is G-d’s blueprint for life. So why can’t we realize the “recipient” aspect of our lives by opening the books and learning directly from them?
Believer: Why to you prefer a book to an individual?
Skeptic: Because every person has his or her own axe to grind. Who can you trust nowadays? What is to be gained by a mortal Moshiach?
Believer: Any parent will tell you that, ultimately, the only way to educate a child is by example. You can employ all sorts of inventive ways to impart an idea or a value but, more than anything else, the child will learn from your character and behavior. Books and other media may stimulate and inspire us but only rarely do they move us to take action—especially action that demands much of us.
Moshiach is a “book” authored by G-d – only not one of paper and ink but of flesh and blood. He is an individual who personifies, in the most absolute and unequivocal manner, what it is that man was created to be. As a living, breathing Torah, he is the optimal (and, ultimately, the only possible) instrument to bring to light the goodness and perfection that is intrinsic to the soul of man.
Skeptic: So we need a white knight on a white donkey to jump-start our souls. That’s how G-d made us. But why? Why must we be dependent on someone else? Could we not have been given the tools to “ignite our potential” on our own?
Believer: Life is created by the means of the relationship between man and woman. Now, let us take the nature of existence back to the drawing board: Why the need for male and female? Surely all creatures could have been created with the capacity to reproduce on their own!
Skeptic: Well thank G-d it wasn’t designed that way. We would have been deprived of one of the most beautiful and fulfilling aspects of our lives.
Believer: It’s far more than one of life’s aspects: relationships – that is to say, the concept of a giver-recipient partnership – are the very essence of life itself. The most obvious and basic of these is the creation of life through the union between the giver and initiator, man, and the recipient and nurturer, woman. But it extends to all areas of life. At the heart of a functioning society is the flow of resources and goods between individuals: commerce, trade and credit are indispensable to life as we know it. Charity and generosity are deeply ingrained in the human soul: every right-thinking individual believes in the responsibility of the haves toward the have-nots. Again, G-d could certainly have created us as self-sufficient entities. But then, as you said, life would be quite empty and unfulfilled.
The same is true on the intellectual and moral level. We are not self-contained worlds – we give and take, teach and learn, influence and are influenced. Every individual is a teacher, with the ability to bestow upon others insights and qualities that are unique to him alone. But the richness of life’s relationships is that they also include a passive, receiving element, as well. So every man is also a student, a recipient who awaits a stimulating “spark” to ignite his latent potentials.
Skeptic: This Moshiach of yours is a king, right?
Believer: That is correct.
Skeptic: So we’re back to totalitarian rule, to monarchs who reign by Divine license. I thought we got over that a few centuries ago.
Believer: Other than the fact that they’re out of style, what exactly is wrong with kings?
Skeptic: Okay, okay, I know what you’re driving at. The despots of history were power-mongers who exploited the naivete of the masses for their selfish ends, or they were power-mongers who actually believed in their “chosenness” and may even had meant well. Either way, the problem with them was that they said that G-d had granted them the right to rule when He really hadn’t. But when G-d truly appoints a king, it is an utterly selfless ruler who does only what is best for his people. That’s what you wanted to say, right?
Believer: Something like that.
Skeptic: But the very idea of one person exerting his will over others repels me. I say, let people make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes. If imperfection is the price of freedom, I’m willing to pay it.
Believer: And you think that democracy expresses the will of the people?
Skeptic: More or less. But I’d rather be governed by an approximate expression of the will of the people than by a perfect expression of the will of the most qualified king. How did Winston Churchill put it? “Democracy is the worst form of government that man has ever devised, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Believer: So you’re saying that democracy is inherently flawed, only we have nothing better.
Skeptic: Sure, there are many problems with democracy. Politicians find it very difficult to work for the long term good of their constituent – to get elected and remain in office they must pander to what’s popular at the moment and to the whims of the media and interest groups. Politics attracts populists and demagogues – those truly qualified to govern avoid it like the plague. The very nature of democracy makes it susceptible to corruption, either in its overt forms or its many subtle forms: power trading, voter manipulation, etc. Finally, even when the will of the people finds expression in governmental policy, the will of the people may be wrong – the fact that most people want something in no way guarantees that it is moral and correct. Nevertheless, I believe that democracy is preferable to imposing the will of a single individual on everyone, even it he is G-d’s personal candidate.
Believer: Why are you knocking democracy so much? I can give you a scenario where you can have all of its advantages without any of the problems you mention.
Skeptic: What’s that?
Believer: Here, let me quote you from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah: “In those times, there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For the good will be plentiful and all delicacies common as dust. The world’s sole occupation will be to know G-d…”
Skeptic: In other words, the world of Moshiach…
Believer: Under such circumstances, in which man has overcome hatred and greed, democracy would work beautifully: the will of the people would be perfect and perfectly expressed…
Skeptic: And you want a king?!
Believer: Let me ask you something else: under such circumstances, who needs any government at all?
Skeptic: You’re right.
Believer: No, I’m wrong. If we needed rulers and leaders only to defend our borders, lock up criminals, regulate the economy, and force us to devote part of our income to feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, then I’d be right. But the role of a true king goes far beyond that.
The Torah’s idea of a king is an individual who has cleansed himself of every last vestige of ego and self-interest. Essentially, he has no will of his own, save the fulfillment of G-d’s purpose in creation. So in subordinating ourselves to such a king, we are not serving an individual’s will but the will of the Almighty. The role of such a king is to teach and inspire his people, guiding them in the fulfillment in their mission and purpose in life.
Skeptic: Still, why can’t we teach and inspire each other as equals? Who needs this “subordination” business?
Believer: Once again, let me counter with a question. If mankind has achieved perfection, what is there to teach and inspire? For that matter, what kind of life are we going to lead in the post-Moshiach era? What will there be to accomplish? Are we just going to sit around all day and admire our perfection?
Skeptic: Perfection is endless. We can always aspire to more.
Believer: Exactly. In our pre-Moshiach world, our lives are completely taken up with combating the negative. Virtually all “accomplishment” is defined in these terms: a disease cured, a criminal rehabilitated, a street cleaned. Doing good means feeding the hungry, enlightening the ignorant, bringing peace to warring factions. So our vision of perfection is the obliteration of all evil and suffering from the face of the earth. A world that is free of war and hunger is the ultimate. To us, such a world is beyond the horizon of our current reality: what can be more perfect than that?
However, this is only the most basic level of perfection. Beyond it, lie further horizons, horizons of achievement within the realm of good itself. We cannot even imagine what these challenges are—we can barely imagine a world free of evil. But these goals and the means to achieve them are there, ad infinitum. G-d is infinite, and He created man in His image. So man possesses an infinite potential for good.
Skeptic: You’re getting off the subject. What does this have to do with my subordinating myself to a king?
Believer: Even in our present day lives, in which every normal human being acknowledges his imperfection, it is very difficult for a person to improve himself. People tend to rest on their laurels. Imagine if we’re all perfect! True, a higher level of perfection awaits beyond the horizon, but in our terms, we’ve made it.
Moshiach’s role in this future world is the same as in today’s world: to serve as the impetus to propel us beyond our current limits, to reach the “impossible”. Today, it takes a leap of faith to accept that a perfect world is possible. The same will be true then, too: to reach higher, we will have to subordinate ourselves to a vision that is beyond our present comprehension.
In our generation, Moshiach is the most perfect human being on earth, one who embodies, in a still imperfect world, the Divine ideal. If we accept him as our king, if we surrender our subjective goals to his vision, we can make heaven on earth. The same will apply after the world has attained perfection. Moshiach is G-d’s anointed king, who teaches and inspires humanity to surmount even itself.
Skeptic: What about freedom? Is there no room for freedom in this perfect world of yours?
Skeptic: Frankly, there is something about your “perfect” world that is disturbing to me. Your premise is that if we all subordinate our subjective goals to serve the Divine purpose in creation, we shall have a messianic utopia on our hands. But if mass servitude is the only way to achieve perfection, maybe it isn’t worth the price. I, for one, would not surrender my freedom for the sake of perfection.
Believer: I don’t think that we are talking about the same Moshiach. You’re envisioning this Orwellian dictator with an army of thought police to enforce his ultra-orthodox brand of morality. But as I said earlier in our discussion, the era of Moshiach is a time in which everyone recognizes the true purpose of his existence and chooses to devote himself to its realization.
When we speak of Moshiach as a king and humanity as his subjects, we are referring to higher sort of “subjugation” than is implied by the common usage of the word. This is not a “subjugation” in the terms of an imperfect today, in which the individual is forced to yield before a higher authority, but subjugation in the ultimate sense of the word: when a person acknowledges the limits of his currently defined self and chooses to surrender them to the vision of a greater truth.
Skeptic: I still object to the very notion of “subjugation,” whether it is achieved by coercion, brainwashing, or the persuasive force of a charismatic leader with a vision of a “greater truth.” The suppression of the freedom of the human spirit is always a negative thing, even if it is for the sake of some higher ideal.
Believer: First of all, a little bit of humility never hurt anyone. A wise man knows his limits as well as his strengths, knows when to exercise his “freedom of spirit” and when to submit to that which is greater than himself. Do you know how the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva, survived a shipwreck? “To each wave that approached me,” he later told, “I bent my head.”
Skeptic: Well, I don’t accept that way of thinking – at least not as a basis upon which to conduct my life. Fight those waves, I say, fight them, even if they threaten to drown you…
Believer: So as far as you’re concerned, our world, as it is today, is just fine. We enjoy the freedom to do practically whatever we choose…
Skeptic: No, I don’t think that our world is fine the way it is. You and I are fortunate enough to enjoy such freedom, but remember that despite the encouraging developments of the last few years, religious and racial prejudices are still the cause of much suffering across the globe. Furthermore, also in the so-called “free world” there is much injustice. Even as we extol the principles of equality and pluralism, we discriminate, in many subtle as well as in more overt ways, against those whose lifestyle or skin color is distasteful to us.
I am certainly not satisfied with the present state of society. I, too, dream of a better world. But my vision of the ideal is not a world that is governed by theocratic absolutes. I would like to see a world community that tolerates differing and even contradictory definitions of the truth, allowing each individual or group to find fulfillment and self-realization in the manner that they themselves define it.
Believer: What about the individual who “defines self-fulfillment” as the pleasure of sexually molesting small children? Or the cult whose “alternate lifestyle” includes inducing its members to mass suicide? Do they, too, have a place in your pluralistic ideal?
Skeptic: Unlike you, I do not claim that my ideal is perfect. It has many flaws and inconsistencies, both in theory and in practice. Obviously, there is a need for certain curbs on individual freedoms, lest society disintegrate to total anarchy.
Believer: “Certain curbs” you say. But how many?
Skeptic: The bare minimum. I won’t deny it – ultimately, freedom has a price. If you respect the validity of differing views on how to define good and evil, certain injustices and abuses (rather, I should say, certain things which I define as injustices and abuses) will occur. But I still prefer this to your “perfect” world, which I would find oppressive and quite boring.
Believer: You speak of the “price that you are willing to pay” as if it is you who is paying the price. Here you are, basking in the comfort of a society which enjoys a standard of living that is among the highest on earth, zealously upholding the unalienable right of man to act as a selfish animal. If a person chooses to find “self-fulfillment” by surrendering to his basest instincts, it is his sacred privilege to do so. If the greed of men and nations causes hunger and destitution to untold millions, it is but a small price to pay in order to make the world more interesting…
Skeptic: As I already said, in my view there are no absolutes, including the freedom of self determination. If self-interest results in grain rotting in the fields while people die of starvation, than obviously something is very wrong. For pluralism to work, humanity must reach a consensus in which a certain balance is struck between individual freedoms and social responsibility.
Obviously, we still have a long way to go before we reach this ideal. But in my view, this is the type of world we ought to strive for, not one of totalitarian goodness and one-dimensional perfection.
Believer: You still haven’t addressed my point. You still maintain that “freedom” includes the “right” to unbridled greed and hedonism, even at the expense of human suffering. You graciously offer to temper these “freedoms” so as to lessen their adverse effects, but, as you yourself acknowledge, there is always “a price to pay.” So whom shall we choose to pay this price? In my view, if today we have the resources and technology to comfortably provide for the needs of all the earth’s inhabitants, a single hungry child is one too many.
Skeptic: And you, my friend, still haven’t addressed my point – aside from laying a guilt trip on me over all those children who are starving because I am not ready to submit to the dictates of a global theocracy. If Moshiach represents the world as envisioned by G-d at creation, why does it preclude freedom? Is man’s desire for freedom not part of the “Divine image” in which he was created?
Believer: It certainly is – although, perhaps, we have different ideas of what exactly is “freedom.” I suggest that we examine the terms “freedom” and “servitude” more critically: What is true “freedom?” What does it mean to “serve”?
Skeptic: I know exactly what you’re going to say – I’ve heard that polemic so many times from believers of every faith and persuasion that I can recite it in my sleep. I know – everyone serves something, be it the dogma of his religion or of social convention. A person might worship the dollar, fame, the dictates of fashion, or his vision of a split-level suburban home with two cars in the driveway. In either case, he subordinates himself to a “god” which he sets as the prime priority of his life, at the expense (or even the ruination) of all else.
The most pathetic slave, many a believer has expounded to me, is the unfortunate hedonist. He is a virtual hostage to his basest passions. His desires are never sated—no matter what he attains, he always lusts for more. He never enjoys a moment of inner peace. True freedom, maintains the believer, is to be a servant of what is highest and most sublime in your potentials. By serving the G-dly ideal, you free yourself of the constraints of your mundane, temporal self.
To the believer, the materialist’s freedom is slavery, and what the materialist would regard as slavery is freedom. One who follows the whims of his heart is enslaving himself to his own ego and his lowliest animal passions, while he who devotes his life to the purpose of his creation experiences the ultimate in freedom and transcendence.
Believer: And what do you say to that?
Skeptic: That’s all fine and well – if that’s the freedom you want. But the most important freedom of all (to my mind, anyway) is the freedom to define “freedom.” Believe it or not, some people want to devote their lives to the pursuit of physical comfort and gratification. For them, freedom is the freedom to choose such “slavery” for themselves. There are many types of freedom, and I think that each person should be free to choose whatever freedom he desires for himself. To impose (what to your mind is) the “highest” form of freedom on everyone else, is the very opposite of freedom.
Believer: Let me ask you something. You eat three times a day, right? Does it disturb you that you have to eat? That you have no choice in the matter? Or how about the fact that, want to or not, you are always thinking. Is your sense of freedom outraged my the fact that you are compelled to engage in these activities?
Of course not. But why not? Because that’s what you are—a human being who eats and thinks and does countless other things by “force” of nature. You recognize that these activities are crucial to your being what you are – and you want to be what you are, not something else. You do not (if you are psychologically sound) want to be a chimpanzee, a rock, or a mathematical equation; you do not feel limited by the fact that you have don’t have three legs or that you’re not ten feet tall – you want to be you. Freedom is the freedom to be you, to be free of all that constrains you from being truly and uninhibitedly yourself. The fact that your nature compels you to be yourself and prevents you from destroying yourself is certainly not perceived by you as “servitude.”
Skeptic: When my doctor told me that I must stop smoking, I did not like it in the least. It sure did feel like “servitude” being compelled by the physiology of my body to refrain from something that I greatly enjoy…
Believer: Only because you do not tangibly and directly perceive the damage that it does to you. You take the doctor’s word for it, you know that your health is deteriorating as a result of your addiction, but you don’t see it. So although your mind wants to stop smoking, your body still wants to smoke, and you must enforce what your “higher” objective self wants on your “lower” subjective cravings. But if each time you were to light up you were to perceive the shortening of your life in some immediate and concrete way, you certainly would feel only revulsion to cigarette smoke.
Skeptic: Maybe you should take out a patent on your method. You can call it “The Messianic Way To Stop Smoking.”
Believer: Believe me, it would work. Imagine that a person was hooked-up to a computer that was able to calculate exactly how long he will live and his medical prognosis for the rest of his lifetime, and that each time he inhales a puff of smoke he would see, on the screen, how his life has been shortened and the quality of his life reduced. Do you think he will even want to smoke?
The most basic and powerful drive of the human body, the drive from which all other drives and desires stem, is the drive for continued existence (the will to live and procreate). So how is it that we can even desire things that run contrary to the ultimate objective of all our desires? Only because at times we lose sight of what we truly want and engage in all sorts of self-delusions and denials. True, we know the statistics on lung cancer, but these are only statistics – who says that it’s going to happen to me? The mind may understand that it is the pleasure of smoking is hardly worth the dangers involved, but smoking can still be a “pleasure” as long as its effects are not immediately and concretely felt.
This, in fact, is the difference between our present reality and the reality of Moshiach…
Skeptic: You sure have a one-track mind. I mention smoking and you turn it into a metaphor for Moshiach…
Believer: The way we are today, we often perceive the very tools of liberation as restriction. My mind may decide on a course of action to realize my deeper potentials, and yet, I have to force myself to follow this course because my physical, animalistic self, which basically relates more to what is immediate and concrete than to conceptual knowledge, remains unconvinced. As a result, it is possible for me to be drawn to things which hinder me from realizing my true essence and purpose. I must therefore chose: Do I wand a “higher,” more “spiritual” freedom? Or do I prefer the so-called “freedom” to succumb to my every instinct, no matter how superficial or perverse?
There is, however, a third option, what you called “The Messianic Way To Stop Smoking.” A person can understand something so thoroughly and completely that it is no less tangible and real to him than something that he sees before his eyes. When the self-destructiveness of smoking is as obvious as the need to eat. When the dictum “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow” is sensed to be as basic to our humanness as the need to think and employ our intelligence. When being true to the purpose of one’s creation is not only understood but also tangibly sensed as being truly oneself, so that acting accordingly is certainly not a “restriction” but an expression of the most basic freedom of them all – the freedom to be oneself.
Skeptic: If you’re so smart, why ain’t you so rich? If it’s as simple as all that, if all we have to do is open our eyes to a truth that is staring us in the face, why hasn’t it already happened?
Skeptic: If you’re so smart, why ain’t you so rich? If it’s as simple as all that, why hasn’t it already happened?
Believer: The Talmud has an axiom that says: ‘‘A prisoner cannot release himself from prison.’’ This basic truth applies to every aspect of reality: in physics, a river cannot climb higher than the elevation of its source; in philosophy, an argument is only as strong as the axioms it is based on; in psychology, the mind can relate to something only in the context of self. Etc., etc., etc. The bottom line is, no entity can transcend what it itself is.
Everyone is for world peace. But within the miniature universe that is man, ‘‘World Wars’’ are raging all the while: conflicts between mind and heart, between conviction and habit, between our spiritual aspirations and our selfish, material desires. How can we hope to create a harmonious universe if we are forever battling our own selves?
Skeptic: You know, I’m afraid that behind the philosophical tone of your words lurks a self-righteous preacher, lambasting lust and greed as the undoing of humanity. You’re assuming that man’s base and selfish drives are what stand in the way of a better world. But I don’t think that we can be so quick as to do away with them—they might prove to be not quite as dispensable as you would like to think.
Look, earlier, you referred to the collapse of communism as an example of the ultimate supremacy of right over might. But do not forget that there is another side to the story—the economic side. I would say that the undoing of communism was not so much its G-dlessness, its violations of human rights or its corruption of power, as its inability to function economically. In terms of natural resources, the Soviet Union was arguably the richest country in the world. So why was it unable to feed its own people? Because it had neutralized the most powerful–if not the only– incentive that drives the human animal (yes, animal) to do anything: the drive for self-advancement.
On paper, communism is beautiful—almost messianic in its idealism and perfection. Everyone giving it their all for the common good. Each contributing according to his abilities and receiving according to his needs. No greed, no jealousy, no exploitation. Compare this with our society: everyone grabbing as much as they can for themselves, slaving and flattering and bullying their way to the top, all for the sake of satisfying their vanity and their material appetites—and if the sight of human suffering makes us somewhat uncomfortable, we agree to some minor curbs on our greed and to provide a ‘‘safety net’’ for its victims. And yet, as our experience has undeniably shown, a system which runs contrary to the ‘‘base and animalistic’’ drives of man just won’t work. No one will do anything. Worse still, it becomes the environment in which the most horrendous atrocities are committed in the name of the highest ideals. On the other hand, a society such as ours, in which the dominant elements are individuality and self-interest, is the soil in which justice and equality may take root and flourish, albeit imperfectly. Your holy books might not agree with this, but, ultimately, ‘‘lust and greed’’ is what drives the machinery of civilized existence.
Believer: Let me tell you a story that is related in the Talmud. Once, the sages of Israel decided to make an all-out effort to eliminate the evil inclination. They all gathered at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and fasted for three days and three nights, praying that the world be cleansed of its animalistic nature. G-d acquiesced to their request. The evil inclination, in the form of a lion of fire, was handed over to them as their captive. For three days it was held in a cage of lead. The result? The world ground to a halt. Men and women felt no inclination to marry. Chickens stopped laying eggs. No one showed up for work in the morning. So instead of killing the lion, as originally planned, the sages blinded it in one eye and set it free.
Skeptic: That’s exactly my point: there is no escaping our basic natures. So all this talk of a selfless utopia is not only a naive fantasy—it is a dangerous one as well. We basically have two choices. We can try to suppress the animal in man, as many authoritarian regimes and ideologies have attempted to do, with disastrous results. Or, we can accept our limitations. We can accept that man will always act in self-interest, and respect each other’s right to do so. We can accept that there will always be injustice and suffering in the world, and seek to minimize it.
Believer: So that’s all we can do—seek to lessen evil?
Skeptic: What other approach is there? How else would you deal with the human ego without throwing out the baby with the bathwater?
Believer: You are assuming that there is nothing more to the human ‘‘I’’ than meets the eye. That the ‘‘self’’ is intrinsically selfish. I disagree. I believe that there is a higher ego implicit in the quest for self-fulfillment which so dominates our lives.
Skeptic: Selfishness is selfishness, no matter what form it takes. No matter how ‘‘sublime’’ a person may think his individual goals are, they will inevitably conflict with the individual goals of others.
Believer: Not quite. As I said, ultimately, our ‘‘selfishness’’ can be shown to be not quite as selfish as its most outward, superficial expressions may suggest. But I’m afraid I’d have to subject you to a long speech on chassidic psychology before I could explain.
Skeptic: I’m listening.
Believer: Chassidic teaching explains our inner conflicts in terms of two souls which each of us possesses: the ‘‘Animal Soul’’ and the ‘‘G-dly Soul.’’ The Animal Soul is the essence of physical life; it focuses exclusively on self, its every act and desire motivated by the quest for self-fulfillment and self-enhancement. The G-dly Soul is its diametric opposite: it is driven not by ego but by a quest for transcendence and self-negation—the drive to fulfill the purpose of its creation and thereby connect to the all-pervading reality of its Creator. This makes for the perpetual struggle of life: the struggle between substance and spirit, between self-assertion and self-nullification. Any thought, desire, or act of man stems from either of his two souls, depending upon which has gained mastery over the other and is asserting itself through the person’s behavior…
Skeptic: Sounds like your basic religious theology: the old dichotomy between good and evil, the cosmic struggle between G-d and Satan…
Believer: Not exactly—remember that Judaism sees evil as a non-entity, akin to the non-phenomenon of darkness. So evil is not a counter-force to good, only the (temporary) concealment thereof. Notice that I said nothing about evil, only about self versus selflessness…
Skeptic: But aren’t you saying that selfishness is the source of all evil?
Believer: Yes, selfishness is often the source of evil, but it can also serve as the source for good. Left to its own devices, the self-oriented drives of man tend to the most immediate and superficial of gratifications, to the utter disregard of anyone or anything else—even his own long-term good. But when the G-dly Soul dominates the mind with its perception of the divine truth, the Animal Soul is also affected. The ‘‘selfishness’’ in man can then be refined and re-directed as a positive force.
In Deuteronomy 30:20, we are told ‘‘To love the Lord your G-d… for He is your life.’’ The Animal Soul loves its own life. When it recognizes that ‘‘He is your life,’’ that G-d is the source and sustainer of its very being, its entire perception changes. The very same ego which craved the most base and material of pleasures is now drawn to attach itself to the Almighty, out of the realization that such an attachment would constitute the ultimate enhancement and perfection of self. So it will devote itself to the fulfillment of the divine purpose for creation, sacrificing its present material expressions of selfhood for the promise of a higher and more fulfilling existence.
This, to me, is the meaning of the Talmud’s story about the attempted assassination of the ‘‘evil inclination.’’ The objective must be not to kill the ego, but to temper its extremes so that its essence may be revealed and re-directed; to strip away its external, negative expressions and uncover the positive force at its core. In the quest for material gain, men and nations may (and inevitably will) clash over conflicting interests. But when humanity uncovers its true self, the pursuit of self-fulfillment becomes a harmonious endeavor. For while each one of us has his own unique mission in life, these are all complimentary parts of the overall divine plan.
Skeptic: You’re making the prospect of a perfected world seem even more hopeless than I say it is. If man has to wait until he achieves inner harmony and perfection before attempting to improve matters on the global scale, the human race would not survive long enough to allow him to do so…
Believer: I’m not saying that we cannot do anything to change our world before we’re all perfect. On the contrary: the more we achieve harmony between men and nations, all the more does our world become a place that is conducive to unifying our splintered selves. What I am saying is that what we do achieve on an inter-personal level must be ugmented by our inner makeup. For what is ‘‘the world’’ if not us? What is ‘‘humanity’’ if not the sum total of its individual members? Since our relationships with others are based on who and what we are, they can never be perfect and enduring so long as we are plagued with conflict within. We may make great advances in world peace and the alleviation of suffering, but soon the selfish and ugly side of man will rear its head. In order to create a harmonious world in the absolute and eternal sense, we must bring unanimity of purpose to our internal worlds.
Skeptic: So all the good that we do is hypocritical?
Believer: That’s the second time you brought up the subject in our discussion. What’s so terrible about hypocrisy?
Skeptic: Surely you don’t think that hypocrisy is a virtue…
Believer: At times it is. Say that I hate someone with a passion. Should I be a hypocrite and act decently toward him, or should I have the ‘‘integrity’’ to smash my fist into his jaw? If I fall in love with a woman who happens to be married to someone else, should I seduce her, or should I hypocritically restrain my inner feelings? If I find a wallet stuffed with cash, should I return it to its owner, or should I be true to my deep-seated desire to keep the money?
Let me tell you a story that’s told of the founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Once, a certain individual was condemned before Rabbi Schneur Zalman as a hypocrite. ‘‘He considers himself a chassid,’’ the Rebbe was told, ‘‘and has assumed all sorts of pious customs and practices. He acts like this real holy fellow. But it’s all superficial—internally, his mind and heart are as coarse and unrefined as ever.’’ ‘‘Well,’’ said the Rebbe, ‘‘in that case, may he meet the end that the Talmud predicts for such people.’’The ‘‘informers’’ were taken aback. They had only wanted to warn the Rebbe about this individual; but now, what sort of calamity had the Rebbe called down upon him? So Rabbi Schneur Zalman explained to them what he had meant. In the final mishnah of the tractate Pe’ah, the Talmud discusses the criteria for a pauper to be eligible to receive charity. The section concludes with the warning: ‘‘One who is not in need, but takes… one who is not lame or blind but makes himself as such, will not die of old age until he is indeed as such.’’ ‘‘In the same vein,’’ said the Rebbe, ‘‘one who makes of himself more than he is in matters of righteousness and piety will eventually find that these traits have become ingrained in his character and in his very being.’’
Skeptic: Make up your mind. Do we first try to perfect the world, or do we first deal with our inner selves…
Believer: Since when is life such an orderly enterprise? We must work on both fronts. We must strive to build a better world, regardless of where we stand in the development and perfection of our inner selves. At the same time, we must realize that only when we have achieved harmony within will our external efforts be met with complete and eternal success.
Skeptic: But isn’t that like trying to simultaneously build a building and dig its foundation?
Believer: In a way, it is. But ultimately, the true foundation is already in place. Gàd created a world that is, in essence, perfect and harmonious, and forged the soul of man in His image. So only a negative act can be hypocritical– indeed every negative act is hypocritical–whereas our positive deeds are always consistent with what we truly are. The challenge is to overcome the divisive drives and tendencies that superimpose our true, intrinsic will and to express this will on all levels, in our character and behavior.
Skeptic: Still, you’re building the second floor before the first.
Believer: That’s the way we human beings are structured. At times a ‘‘second floor’’ rises out of the foundation and the ‘‘first floor’’ is filled in later. A person may do something which is totally ‘‘out of character’’ for him but which, in truth, reflects an even deeper will that has yet to be developed as a conscious thought or feeling.
In Judaism, this is more than a philosophical or psychological principle—it also translates into a pragmatic approach to life. It even has legal implications. For example, Maimonides, the famed 12th-century codifier of Torah law, writes in the second chapter of his Laws of Divorce: ‘‘If the law mandates that a person grant his wife a divorce and he refuses, a Jewish court, in any time or place, may beat him until he says ‘I am willing’ and writes the writ of divorce (get). This is a valid divorce, although according to Torah law, a divorce must be granted willingly. For in truth, this individual wishes to be of Israel and wishes to observe all of the commandments and to avoid all of the transgressions of the Torah; only his evil inclination has overpowered him. So if he is beaten so that his evil inclination is weakened and he says ‘I am willing,’ he has divorced willingly.’’
Skeptic: What it boils down to is that you’re telling me what my true self is. But what if I’m perfectly satisfied with the me that I know? Why should I fight the way that I am now?
Skeptic: You say that G-d created me in His image – but you apply this only to some deeper, quintessential self which desires only good. The rest of me (indeed, the only “me” that I know) resists it. Is this what G-d wants – that I spend my life fighting my own nature? Is this some kind of cruel joke?
Believer: Why must a seed rot in order to germinate and yield fruit? Why must we sink a foundation in order to raise a building? Why must we risk loss in order to profit? Why must we experience pain in order to appreciate joy?
Skeptic: You’re saying that this is the way things are – that there is no advance without retreat, no gain without pain. But why is it that way?
Believer: Let me tell you a story.
Skeptic: When all else fails, you guys always have a story…
Believer: It’s usually the best way to get your point across. I think it was Rabbi Nachman of Breslau who said, “The world says that tales put people to sleep. I say that with tales you can rouse people from their sleep.”
Anyway, here’s my story:
A wealthy nobleman was touring his estate and came upon a peasant pitching hay. The nobleman was fascinated by the flowing motions of the peasant’s arms and shoulders and the graceful sweep of the pitchfork through the air. He so greatly enjoyed the spectacle that, on the spot, he struck a deal with the peasant: for ten rubles a day, the peasant agreed to come to the mansion and model his hay-pitching technique in the nobleman’s drawing room.
The next day, the peasant arrived at the mansion, hardly concealing his glee at his new line of “work” After swinging his empty pitchfork for over an hour, he collected his ten rubles – many times his usual take for a week of backbreaking labor. But by the following day, his enthusiasm had somewhat abated. Several days later he announced to his master that he was quitting his new commission.
The nobleman said to the peasant: “I don’t understand. Why would you rather labor outdoors, in the bitter winter cold and sweltering summer heat, when you can perform such an effortless task in the comfort of my home and earn many times your usual pay?”
“But master,” said the peasant, “I don’t see the work.”
Skeptic: You’re saying that for life to be meaningful it must challenge us. There must be something that resists our efforts, so that we are not merely going through the motions but actually doing something. Okay, I buy that. But why must we be challenged by our own nature? Why could we not have been born with a clear picture of who and what we truly are? We would still have the entire world to improve. There would still be much to challenge us, outside of ourselves.
Believer: I think that your question answers itself. What greater challenge is there? G-d wanted to involve us in His creation in a truly meaningful way, so He provided us with the ultimate challenge: the challenge to transcend ourselves. Nothing that man can create can be more of an accomplishment than his recreation of himself.
Skeptic: Life as work, work as life. I know that Job said “Man is born to labor,” but did it ever occur to you that there may be another way of looking at life? Instead of Mission, Purpose, Challenge, and Achievement, why not life as a party? Or better yet, life as a lazy afternoon in the sun…?
Believer: Tell me this: how many happy retirees do you know?
Skeptic: You know, the more we talk, the more convinced I become that all we’re doing is reinforcing our instinctive visions of reality. You believe, I don’t. Of course, we each have logical arguments to support our positions. But ultimately, it’s a question of faith. Either you have it, or else you don’t.
Believer: Oh, I see. We believers are the primitive, unthinking masses, while the skeptic is the enlightened, sophisticated, 20th century Ubermench….
Skeptic: I’m not knocking faith. Listen, there are advantages on both sides. I admit that skeptics are overly cynical, but you must admit that believers are often blind. Believe me, I’ve often wished I was a believer – it’s so much easier…
Believer: Ah… that’s the second one: faith is a cop-out, a refusal to take responsibility for one’s life.
Skeptic: Well… isn’t it?
Believer: Other than the fact that this is the common conception of the believer, on what do you base this, uh, belief? Give me a concrete example.
Skeptic: Well, the skeptic knows that there’s no free lunch. If he wants to earn a living, he must acquire the proper training and devote the necessary time and toil. The more he invests, the greater his chances for success. The believer, on the other hand, maintains that “it’s all in the hands of G-d”: if He wants me to be rich, I’ll be rich; if He wants me to be poor, no amount of career planning, and no amount of overtime, will increase the balance in my bank account. So why bother? What will be will be…
Or take this Moshiach business: G-d made the world perfect, so, in the end, it cannot but be perfect. The course of history has already been decided…
Believer: What you describe is fatalism, not faith. It was the Talmudic sage Hillel who coined the phrase “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” – would you consider him a skeptic?
Certainly, the believer knows that no matter how much effort and expertise he invests, everything comes from G-d. But it is he who must create the “vessel” to contain G-d’s blessings. In the words of the Torah, “G-d will bless you in all that you do”; or, as one chassidic master put it, G-d’s blessing is like rain: if one does not plough and sow, it can rain for forty days and forty nights and not a grain of wheat will grow. On the other hand, our efforts, in of themselves, yield nothing without the bestowal from above.
As for the Moshiach issue, it’s the skeptic, not the believer, who’s taking the easy route. The skeptic accepts reality as it is. He’s the ultimate conformist – he has a philosophy that’s 100% consistent with the world he lives in. Sure, all the chaos, cruelty, and suffering may distress him emotionally (though he cannot explain why he cares) but rationally, hey, what do you expect? And when things seem to be getting better, hey, that’s great! Look at that – we even get lucky sometimes.
The believer, on the other hand, agonizes over the state of the universe. He refuses to accept the status quo. Evil is wrong – morally wrong, rationally wrong. Things should not be this way – they cannot be this way. He fights the “reality”’ the world represents him with every fiber of his being, struggling to unearth the real reality which is buried under all this fallacy.
Ultimately, however, you’re right: the believer has it better. Not because he has less responsibility, not because it’s easier for him, but because he knows that, ultimately, after he has done everything in his power, G-d will bless his efforts. He has the confidence that the potential for perfection – both on the individual and the universal levels – is there, and that after he has done everything in his power to realize it, it will be realized.
Skeptic: That makes for a very iffy situation. At what point can a person say “I have done everything within my power”? Isn’t it very tempting to reach that conclusion after making a couple of phone calls and coining a few slogans?
Believer: Certainly. Faith has its pitfalls, and this is one of them. Free choice means that everyone has the option of copping out on life, including believers. But I think that skepticism is even more fraught with such dangers. If the skeptic wants to cop out, all he has to do is say, “I don’t give a damn.”
Skeptic: Look, I agree with you. I don’t think that believers are necessarily dumber or lazier or more primitive than nonbelievers. It’s just that it takes a certain something – a certain naiveté, or gullibility – I don’t want to offend you, but I don’t know what else to call it – to believe. As I said, either you have it, or you don’t.
Believer: Would you say the same thing about reason?
Skeptic: What do you mean?
Believer: Say that someone is acting in an unreasonable manner. Would you say, “Well, that’s the way it is with reason. Either you have it, or you don’t”?
Skeptic: No. Just about everyone (with a few notable exceptions) has a few ounces of gray matter between his ears. It’s usually a question of how much a person develops and utilizes his faculty to reason.
Believer: The same is true of the faculty of faith. Everyone has is – it is no less integral to the human soul than the faculty to will, think, or feel. It’s simply a question of how much it’s developed and utilized.
Skeptic: But one doesn’t usually think of faith as a faculty. It’s more an absence of something – a surrender of reason and inquiry.
Believer: That’s exactly where your misconception of the nature of faith lies. At times, faith overrules reason, but it is wrong to define faith as nothing more than the point at which one stops to think. “Believe” is an active verb. Faith is a perceptive tool with which we actively grasp and relate to certain truths – just like the mind, the eye or the ear actively grasp and relate to the specific stimuli that each is designed to perceive.
In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes that the statement “G-d is so lofty that he cannot be understood” is a ridiculous statement. Imagine one who says, “This idea is so abstract and ethereal, that it cannot be grasped by the human hand.” No idea, not even the most “coarse” and prosaic idea, can be grasped by the human hand – the sense of touch simply has no access to the realm of the intellect. Now, if one were to say “This physical substance is so fine and ethereal, that it cannot be grasped by the human hand,” or “This idea is so lofty that he cannot be understood,” or “The light is so powerful that it cannot be seen” – this would indeed be an attestation to the fineness or loftiness or brightness of the substance or idea or the light. But to say that G-d cannot be understood is to say that G-d’s reality is a rational reality, one whose loftiness and abstraction is measured in terms of the intellect’s grasp or non-grasp of it. Ultimately, this is as much a misstatement of the divine truth as to say that G-d can be understood.
The eye sees things that are seeable, the ear hears things that are hearable, the intellect understands things that are understandable. We cannot see sounds or hear colors any more than we can eat soup with a fork – the tool is simply not designed to deal with the object. In the same way, there are truths that lie beyond the realm of reason, truths that can only be perceived with the faculty of faith.
Skeptic: That’s truly an original way of looking at it – at least to me it is. But how do know this is so? Oh – I guess you believe it…
Believer: If you want to see the faculty of faith at work, look at the three-year-old child. He believes. Tell him that you have his nose in the palm of your hand, and he’ll believe you. But why does he believe you?
Skeptic: He believes you because he cannot understand that you’re teasing him!
Believer: That’s not a reason why he believes. It only explains why his intellect does not prevent him from believing. When I ask you why you see something, it’s not enough for you to say “Because there’s nothing that’s preventing me from seeing” – if you didn’t have eyes, G-d forbid, you wouldn’t be able to see. You see because you have eyes that absorb and react to light, and a sense of sight that interprets these reactions as images.
Why does the child believe? Because each and every one of us is born with a faculty of faith. A faculty that recognizes truths that are infinitely greater than ourselves – so much greater that they are incontestable on any logical level (to the child, the utterance of a grownup) – and accepts them and assimilates them as real and relevant.
Skeptic: And then we lose it?
Believer: We don’t lose it – it is ruined for us. We are lied to. We are lied to about where babies come from, about the tooth fairy, about the integrity of the role models we are told to emulate. Time and again, our faculty for faith is abused. We accept things on faith, and then we acquire the intelligence and information that expose their fallacy. So we begin to distrust our faith, to quell the inner voice that tells us “This is true. I cannot perceive it logically, for it lies beyond the scope of my intellectual prowess. But I know it to be true, I sense its truth with every fiber of my being. I believe it.”
Skeptic: But how is one to know what to believe?
Believer: How do you know what to see, hear or understand? You use your mind, and you trust your basic instincts. If you see an elephant flying through the air, your mind tells you: “This is wrong. Elephants cannot fly. I am either dreaming, or being misled by an optical illusion. My sense of sight tells me that an elephant is flying, but I know that this cannot be. I deduce that, in this case, my sense of sight has no grasp of the true reality.” If I were to prove to you, with infallible logic, that it is now night, your mind would tell you “Rationally, this man’s proofs are utterly convincing. My sense of reason accepts them. But I know that it is day. Obviously, my sense of reason, in this case, has been mislead.”
In other words, we each have an interior “judge of truth” – an “I” that transcends all our senses and instincts and is the ultimate assessor and arbiter of the information and perceptions they feed us. At times, it tells us a logical truth we have deduced should overrule a misguided conviction or feeling. At times, it rules that the rational mind should yield to a truth that has been embraced by one’s faculty of faith.
Skeptic: So the mind, then, is the ultimate authority.
Believer: “Authority” is the wrong word, since, as I said, the mind must itself recognize the limits of the area under its jurisdiction. To say that the mind is our “guide” through life would be more correct. The mind is the link between our subconscious self and our behavioral self. It is the “command center” which processes our convictions and impressions into the thoughts, feelings and actions of daily life.
A mature mind treats its own intellect as one amongst many faculties. It has a clear understanding of its powers (which are formidable – the intellect will often overrule the other faculties) but also of the axiomatic truths, perceived by faith, which it has neither the authority nor the means to challenge.
Skeptic: You know, your Moshiach idea was beginning to look no more ominous than a touching bit of optimism for our ill-fated world. But then I came across something that reinforced my first impression of it.
Believer: What was your first impression?
Skeptic: That it is a relic of an archaic past, a throwback to an age in which people referred to religious ritual in order to define their relationship with reality. I was reading the final chapters of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah – you know, where he writes about the era of Moshiach – when I came across the part about the Holy Temple and the acrifices… I’m sure you know the passage I’m referring to…
Believer: I know. But why don’t you quote it for the benefit of our readers.
Skeptic: You mean our conversation is being published? You’ve got to be kidding!
Believer: Why not? If you don’t want your views to be known, we’ll keep it anonymous…
Skeptic: No, no no… it’s not that at all. Anyway, here is the passage from Maimonides’ Laws of Kings, chapter 11:
‘‘The King Moshiach will arise and restore the kingdom of David to its glory of old, to its original sovereignty. He will rebuild the Holy Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel. In his times, all laws of the Torah will be reinstated as before: the sacrifices will be offered and the Sabbatical and Jubilee years instituted as commanded in the Torah…’’
Believer: And you find the prospect disturbing.
Skeptic: To talk about a universal belief in G-d is one thing. But a Holy Temple, with animal sacrifices whose blood is sprinkled on the altar and whose flesh is ritually consumed by white-robed priests? You want to bring all that back?
Believer: What about the ritual we call ‘‘dinner’’? A yearling calf is slaughtered, its blood recycled as fertilizer, its bones ground to gelatin, its hide tooled into $600 boots, and its flesh grilled a meticulous medium-rare by a white-hatteded chef, borne aloft by white-shirted waiters and solemnly consumed by white-tied diners to the sound of piano music in a posh restaurant?
Skeptic: You’re right – that’s just as barbaric. Many times, while digging into a steak, I’ve thought: ‘‘What right have I to consume the flesh of another animal?’’ It’s not as if I couldn’t live without it. More than once I’ve resolved to stop eating meat.
Believer: Do you think that turning vegetarian would solve your moral dilemma? If man lacks the right to consume the flesh of animals, what right has he to consume any of his fellow creatures? If human life is no more worthy than animal life, who decided that it is more worthy than vegetable life? For that matter, what ‘‘right’’ have we to consume water or oxygen? And do you realize that by taking a stroll through a flowering meadow on a summer afternoon, you destroy thousands of seedlings and insects?
Skeptic: But an animal has feelings. It wants to live. It suffers pain.
Believer: And what if I kill it painlessly? Does that make it all right? Everyone agrees that it is wrong to kill a fellow human being, be it in the most painless and ‘‘humane’’ manner, even if one greatly profits from the deed. The infliction of pain and suffering is a secondary issue. The real question is: If I am no better than an animal, and even if I am ‘‘better,’’ what justifies my taking its life in order to fill my belly? The same could be applied to all existences: What right have I to kill a half-dozen roses in order to beautify my mantelpiece, to pull out the weeds in my garden, or to cut down trees and level a mountain in order to build a shopping mall? What right have I to destroy any fellow being for my own benefit?
Skeptic: Listen, man cannot be more ‘‘moral’’ than nature itself! The very nature of existence determines that the mineral world sustain the vegetable world, that they both be consumed by the animal kingdom, that animals prey on each other, that thunderstorms start fires that consume forests, that living tissue die and decompose and nourish a new generation of life. No one would consider the cat ‘‘immoral’’ for tormenting the mouse—it does so out of mindless instinct.
Believer: So why these stirrings of vegetarianism in your soul?
Skeptic: Well, the human race is different in one very important respect. Man does not act by instinct only. We have been blessed with a discriminating intelligence – we choose how and to what extent we will exploit our fellow creatures to serve our needs. To us, it is not only a question of survival, but also of taste, convenience and pleasure. This is what makes ‘‘morality’’ an issue for us: how far should we go?
Believer: Indeed, how far should we go? Should we eat only vegetables? Are milk or eggs okay? If eating meat for pleasure is morally acceptable, how about leather shoes or a fur coat? May we relieve our headaches with drugs that have been developed through painful experimentation on animals? Attend a bullfight for entertainment? And what about the one who claims that acting out his ‘‘killer instinct’’ by hunting large mammals fills a ‘‘deep psychological need’’ of his and allows him to experience a ‘‘spiritual oneness with nature’’?
Skeptic: Certainly, it’s a complex issue. Most moral issues cannot be summed up in terms of black and white – we can only ponder their shades of gray. That’s why we debate them and grapple with them.
Believer: You remind me of a certain Israeli politician of whom it was said that if you’d ask him if he’d like coffee or tea he’d answer ‘‘Half and half.’’ I hate to break it to you, but there are certain either/or issues in life.
Skeptic: So where would you draw the line?
Believer: If you’ll bear with me for a few minutes more, I’ll tell you. I’ll even get back to the sacrifices in the Holy Temple.
Skeptic: Go ahead.
Believer: Ultimately, there are only two ways of looking at ourselves vis-a-vis our world. Either the natural order is the result of the way things happened to have developed of their own accord – in which case it is not really an ‘‘order’’ at all – or else it is a purposeful creation. If nature has no meaning or purpose beyond its own existence, then our ‘‘discriminating intelligence’’ and ‘‘freedom of choice’’ is probably just a figment of our imagination. If it does exist, then why?
Is it just another animal’s tool for survival, like the tiger’s claws and the turtle’s shell? Is it just there, for no particular reason? In any case, the issue of ‘‘morality’’ becomes a point. Each individual may decide which elements of his environment he is ‘‘allowed’’ to consume and for what purposes, and each such set of ‘‘moral’’ standards is as valid as any other. Our second option is that our world was designed and created by a purposeful Creator and thus exists for a higher purpose, one that transcends its own existence and continuity. In such a world, each creature’s particular qualities and utilities are not only implements for survival, but are also specific to the role it fills in the realization of this purpose. In light of this, a certain quality that is unique to the human being, man’s ‘‘freedom of choice,’’ becomes particularly significant.
Believer: Because in speaking of a purpose to our world, we are faced with a ‘‘catch-22’’ of sorts: If the world was created from nothing, then everything it has, all its potentials and possibilities, have been given it by its Creator. So how can anything the world produces be truly meaningful? Say that you take a few colors and combine then in different ways to produce many more shades of color. Have you created something new? All you’ve done is bring to light what already latently existed. It’s like trying to program a computer to select a truly ‘‘random’’ number: since the computer’s chips and wires cannot invent anything, any number it comes up with is ultimately determined by your program; ultimately, you are telling the computer which number to choose. The same can be asked about our world: Since G-d created everything, how can we speak of a ‘‘purpose’’ whose significance extends beyond what the world already is?
This is where man’s freedom to choose comes in. If doing good and refraining from evil were as instinctive to us as our ingestion of food and the rejection of its wastes from our bodies, then our deeds would have no more moral significance than the viciousness of the shark or the dove’s loyalty to its mate. But because our behavior is free and non-determined, because we can make use of or resist our natural tendencies at will, we can create something that goes beyond what has been ‘‘programmed’’ into creation.
The point of all this is that if our world has a purpose, man is the focal point of this purpose. As the only being with free choice, only his actions are truly meaningful. So he is apex of creation, the top of the pyramid: the only way in which any other creature or element can be involved in the realization of the purpose of creation is through its participation in the actions of man. When man consumes the flesh of an animal, and then uses the energy to do something positive and transcendental – say he earns money and, despite his primal instinct to keep it all for himself, gives some of it to charity – the animal has transcended the limits of its own being, something it could never have achieved on its own. The Talmud sums it up this way: ‘‘The entire world was created to serve me, and I was created to serve my Creator.’’
Skeptic: So man may exploit his environment in any way he chooses, as long as he does good deeds and serves his Creator?
Believer: No, because man does not define how and with what the Creator is to be served. The Creator defines it. That’s what the Torah is – G-d’s communication to man of His purpose in creation and the manner in which it is to be achieved. The Torah tells man that he may eat the flesh of certain animals but not of others; that he may eat meat, and milk, but not the two together; that he may cultivate an orchard, but may not partake of its fruit for the first three years after its trees have taken root; that six days a week he may burn fuel to produce energy, but that it is forbidden to do so on the Shabbos. In short, the world is not man’s to do with as he desires. It exists to serve him in his service of his Creator – not for his own selfish ends.
Skeptic: But if man can do perfectly well without meat, how does it contribute to his service of the Creator? He could get the energy just as well from other sources.
Believer: Man’s pleasure in life can also become an integral part of his service of G-d. For example, it is a mitzvah to pleasure the Shabbos and the festivals with meat and wine. Another example is that given by the great Talmudic sage, Rava, who once remarked that were it not for the delicious cut of beef he had for dinner his learning would not have gone as well. On the other hand, if a person seeks pleasure merely for the sake of pleasure, he is indeed no better than the animal he is consuming and his right to consume it is indeed questionable. This is why the Talmud says ‘‘A boor is forbidden to eat meat.’’
The bottom line is this: man has no inherent right to consume anything merely to preserve or enhance his own existence. But everything that G-d created realizes its purpose through the actions of man. So it is man’s privilege, indeed his duty, to utilize all the resources which have been placed at his disposal to serve the Almighty.
Nowhere is this principle more powerfully demonstrated than with the korbanos (animal sacrifices) offered at the Holy Temple. A typical korban was the shlamim, or ‘‘peace offering.’’ A ewe or she-goat was slaughtered. Its blood was sprinkled on the sides of the altar and certain pieces of fat were removed and burned on the altar’s top. Two of its choice cuts of meat were given as gifts to the priests; the rest of the meat was eaten by the one who brought the offering, but only under the strict conditions of ritual purity. Thus the blood, representing the fervor and passion for the material involvements of life, and the ‘‘fat,’’ representing excessive indulgence and pleasure-seeking, are to be sacrificed to G-d. The ‘‘meat’’ of the material, after a certain portion of it is shared with others, is for a person’s own consumption, but only under conditions of holiness – only for the sake of a higher end. Other sacrifices, such as the chatas (sin-offering), were given in their entirety to the priests, and the olah was completely burned on the altar. These represents those circumstances in which certain parts of our world are completely sanctified and off limits for personal use.
Skeptic: Everything you say can be applied to our lives today. Why do we need a ‘‘Holy Temple’’ with the sprinkled blood and all the other gory details?
Believer: First of all, if you’re going to eat meat, you need a slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant replete with what you call ‘‘all the gory details.’’ But these details can be elevated from their ‘‘goriness’’ when sanctified as the means of man’s efforts to perfect G-d’s creation.
But to answer your question. Of course, the korbanos can be related to as a concept. In fact, today, that’s just about all we can do. We don’t have a Holy Temple, so we try to make an altar of our dinner table and turn our steak and fries into a korban. When we eat (or otherwise consume and benefit from the physical world) with the intention to devote our energies to a higher purpose, we sublimate the food that sustains us. But much of this remains abstract and intangible. On the spiritual level, we have elevated the ‘‘soul’’ of the cow or the potato; but to our physical senses, the piece of meat is still the same corporeal piece of meat. For all our holy intentions, our present-day world remains, on the perceptible level, overwhelmingly materialistic and egocentric.
The Jew yearns for Moshiach is because he wants to do more than play mind games. He wants a world in which the spiritual content of his life is as real and as tangible as its physical implements. He wants a world in which, as the prophet Isaiah puts it, ‘‘all flesh will see’’ the divine essence of reality. He wants a world whose focal point is the Holy Temple, in which the presence of the Creator is openly expressed. He wants the restoration of the Temple service, where flesh is imbued with a holiness that is perceived and experienced.
Skeptic: Just one question: did you ask the animal how he feels about all this?
Skeptic: Tell me this: if what you say is true, if, underneath it all, the selfish animal we call ‘‘man’’ possesses a soul that is essentially and inherently good, why have all attempts to uncover it failed so dismally? Christianity, Islam, Communism, Humanism—so many religions and ideologies all appeal to just such a ‘‘higher ego.’’ And yet, here we are, in the year 2001, back at square one with our good old, tried and true, egoistic ego…
Believer: But does not the very existence of all these ‘‘isms’’ indicate that, by his very nature, man is forever seeking to transcend his material-bound self? If there is nothing more to man than the urge for animal gratification, why have so many people accepted the moral demands of these creeds? Does this itself not indicate that there is something more deeply ingrained in the human soul than the desire for life’s temporal pleasures?
Obviously, in his heart of hearts, man longs for a freedom and transcendence that cannot be satisfied by mere ‘‘freedom’’ from restriction. He is convinced that there is a higher purpose to life, and is driven to learn it and to apply himself to its realization.
Skeptic: And yet, they failed! Of the hundreds of millions of ‘‘devotees’’ to
all these faiths and causes, only a tiny fraction are truly faithful to them. The overwhelming majority are self-deluding hypocrites: they take from the ideology what they need to satisfy their spiritual pretensions and their moral vanity, and then basically do what they please (taking care, of course, not to undermine their position in the community of the faithful). And more often than not, these great moral codes have achieved the very opposite of what they professed to teach. Instead of taming man’s animal drives, they served as the tools for exploitation and oppression. Instead of universal brotherhood, they brought war and devastation…
Believer: First of all, the various religions and ideologies that man has come up with are, at best, only poor approximations of the true inner drives of the human soul. They call upon a person to surrender his personal desires not to his own quintessential will, but to some philosopher’s or ascetic’s subjective vision of perfection. And man, as everyone knows, does not like being told what to do. A certain part of him is indeed drawn to the higher plane of being that the ideology promises, but his selfish self rebels. Even in the best of cases, life is a struggle between the animal nature of man and his higher instincts; when all a person has to strive towards is a distorted picture of his soul’s true priorities, the struggle is immeasurably more difficult.
Skeptic: And second of all?
Believer: Secondly, they did succeed—to the extent that they do concur with the essence of man and of creation. Communism, despite its flaws and corruptions, has had a profound effect on our sense of social justice. Christianity, despite the horrendous atrocities it perpetrated and justified, played a major role in introducing, to a largely pagan world, the concepts of a one, omnipotent and non-corporeal G-d and of a messianic end-goal to existence. The same could be said of many of the world’s religions and social movements: although the product of man’s finite and error-prone mind, these subjective formulations of life’s purpose also contain something of the Creator’s vision of reality. Therein lies the secret of their power to motivate so many people to sacrifice so much for their sake.
Skeptic: In other words, it’s like the story with graduate student and his advisor…
Believer: I didn’t hear that one.
Skeptic: After many months of hard work, the student tremulously submits a draft of his thesis to his advising professor. The young man spends a sleepless night and is waiting at the door of his mentor’s office the next morning. ‘‘So, what do you say?’’ he asks. ‘‘Well,’’ begins the professor, ‘‘your work is both good and original…’’
‘‘Yeah…’’ prompts the student eagerly.
‘‘But the part that’s original is no good, and the part that’s good isn’t original…’’
Believer: That’s a good one. I’ll certainly use that sometime…
Skeptic: Sure. You’ve got it all figured out. There is only one G-d-given truth, which (lucky you!) happens to be the very religion that you were born into. As for all other beliefs and moral systems, well, everything good about them is plagiarized from your authentic faith, while everything bad about them is where they ruined it when they began thinking for themselves…
Skeptic: You know something, I think that you are doing injustice to the idea of Moshiach with your unyielding orthodoxy. You insist on preserving the concept of Moshiach exactly as the Prophets spoke of it over twenty-five centuries ago: the return of all Jews to the land of Israel, the restoration of the royal house of David to the monarchy, a Holy Temple, sacrifices – the works. The idea behind all this is beautiful and inspiring: the quest for a peaceful and harmonious world, a world free of jealousy and hate, a world in which the pursuit of wisdom takes the place of today’s rat race for power and material wealth. The Prophets expressed this in terms of their world, terms that hardly apply to our century. Why don’t you take the gist of what ‘‘Moshiach’’ stands for and discard its out-of-date packaging?
To my mind, your literal-minded approach colors your entire message with a biblical-religious flavor and detracts from its power and relevancy.
Believer: This brings us back to your earlier question, ‘‘Why bring G-d into the picture?’’ You felt that everything we are speaking about – the inherent goodness of man, a meaning and destiny to life and history – could be conceived of without a creator of life and an author of history…
Skeptic: And you said that without G-d there can be no objective definition of good nor a true sense of meaning to life. But even if Moshiach represents the divine purpose and end-goal of creation, why must it include all the things I mentioned?
Believer: Well, it’s either one or the other. Were the Prophets prophets or merely social philosophers? Were they putting forth their own humanly conceived ideas – in which case we can take them or leave them or else take whatever we identify with and reject the rest – or were they indeed doing what they said they were doing, conveying the word of G-d to humanity?
Skeptic: Even if G-d did speak to us through them, it is still G-d speaking 25 centuries ago. Perhaps their words represent what that generation was to aspire to, while we must adapt these ideas to fit our times.
Believer: You know who you remind me of? You remind me of Feivel the Coachman.
Skeptic: Who is Feivel the Coachman?
Believer: A character in an old chassidic joke. Once, a group of chassidim decided that they wished to spend Chanukah with their rebbe. The only problem was that it was already a week before the festival, and no coachman was willing to guarantee that the long and difficult journey could be made in that time. Finally, they found Feivel, who, eager for the high price the chassidim were offering, agreed to their condition. ‘‘If am not there by Chanukah,’’ Feivel promised cheerfully, ‘‘you owe me nothing.’’
Anyway, they set out in the dead of winter and, as the father of all cynics put it, anything that could possibly go wrong, did. One of the horses slipped on an ice patch and broke its leg. The coach skidded off the road and had to be dug out of a snowdrift. They lost their way in the forest. You get the picture. In short, when Feivel and his coachful of Chassidim finally hobbled into the rebbe’s courtyard it was two weeks after Chanukah.
When Feivel realized that his passengers had no intention of paying him, he was outraged. He immediately summoned them to the town’s rabbinical court. After carefully listening to the arguments offered by both sides, the presiding rabbi ruled that the Chassidim have no obligation to pay their hapless coachman. Now poor Feivel turned on the rabbi: ‘‘This is justice?! Have you no heart? I work myself to the bone for a month, and I don’t get anything for my trouble?’’ Patiently, the rabbi tried to explain.
‘‘My dear man,’’ he said, ‘‘I do not decide these things on my own – I can only rule by what the Torah says. According to Torah law, if a person makes a contract and is aware of all the implications of the agreement, he is bound by it. There is absolutely no other decision I could have arrived at.’’
‘‘You mean the Torah says that they don’t have to pay me?’’ demanded Feivel.
‘‘Yes,’’ replied the rabbi.
‘‘Aha!’’ cried the coachman triumphantly. ‘‘Now I understand. The Torah was given on
Shavuot, right? On Shavuot the roads are perfect, the days are long, the weather is beautiful. Of course! If I would have failed to make the trip in time for Shavuot, they certainly ought not to pay me. But had the Torah been given on Chanukah, it surely would have ruled in my favor!’’
Skeptic: That’s a cute story, but still, you will certainly acknowledge that times can change in a way that does affect the way we orient our lives…
Believer: Just a minute. Let me explain the point I wished to make with the story. Obviously, a law written in the summer applies equally to the winter. We assume that the author of the law is well aware of the differences between summer and winter, and that if the seasonal conditions are a factor he would have said so explicitly. Now, if G-d, before whom the entirety of time is an open book, communicates to us His vision of a perfect world and says to us, ‘‘This is the goal of my creation. This is what I want you to make of my world,’’ are we to assume that a day, a year, or a millennium later the message no longer applies?
Skeptic: So what are we to make of the fact that the Torah’s description of the messianic era – a king, a Holy Temple, etc.– appears to be 2,000 years out of date? Perhaps G-d wants us to constantly re-assess this vision and to re-apply it to the times in which we live?
Believer: Look, I think that we have to get to the root of our differing perspectives on the ‘‘datedness’’ of the Torah. Earlier, we had long discussions on two of the issues connected with Moshiach that are ‘‘archaic’’ in your eyes – Moshiach’s kingship and the korbonos in the Holy Temple. I explained their ageless significance and relevancy, and you probably saw my words as a philosophical effort to force deeper meaning into concepts that my stubborn orthodoxy refuses to let go of. Until we clarify our views on what exactly the Torah is, we will be forever talking circles around each other.
Skeptic: Okay, I’ll let you talk circles first (you seem to be pretty good at it). How do you see Torah?
Believer: First of all, let me say this: If the Torah seems ‘‘out of date’’ today, then it was far more out of date on the morning of the revelation at Sinai 3,306 years ago. Think of all the revolutionary ideas which Torah introduced: The concept of a One G-d. Prohibitions against murder, theft, rape, incest, or the sacrifice of one’s children to a pagan god. The obligation to honor and provide for one’s parents. The duty to share one’s wealth with the needy. Today, we find it incredible that such things needed to be commanded to us, but back then, they were no less fantastic than those elements of Torah which you find so hard to accept.
What happened? Two million people took G-d’s plan for existence and began to implement it in their lives, regardless of how well it fit in with the world in which they lived. Over the millennia, they inspired other monotheistic and near-monotheistic religions and great social movements. They deeply influenced many other doctrines, legal systems, ideologies and cultures. In a word, they brought the world that much closer to the Torah’s ethos and ideals.Torah is not a creed that came in response to a given century and set of circumstances, but one which came to impose its principles and practices on an unperfected world. So it is always out of date. It is the ‘‘times’’ which are steadily approaching the Torah, not the other way around. If the Torah were entirely ‘‘up to date’’ this would mean that it had fulfilled its function – it would mean that Moshiach had come.
Skeptic: As you said, that is your view of Torah. Others may have different theories on the matter…
Believer: Still, I think that before anyone formulates his own ‘‘theory’’ on what the Torah is, he ought to be aware of how the Torah sees itself…
Skeptic: That’s exactly what I’ve been saying to you until I’m blue in the face! How can you tell me what I am, instead of asking me how I define myself? Of course, my self-definition may be wrong, and you might know some things about me that I’m not aware of. That’s how psychoanalysts get rich. But to construct a theory about someone or something without first consulting its own self-definition is not only arrogant – it’s downright foolish!
Believer: I agree. And I wonder how many people who’ve expounded on the Torah and its function know what the Torah says about itself. Here, this is from the Midrash Rabbah on the first chapter of Genesis: ‘‘The Torah says: ‘I was the tool of G-d’s artistry.’ An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own: he has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G-d: He looked into the Torah and created the world.’’
In other words, the Torah is G-d’s blueprint for creation. This is what He wants His world to look like. At Sinai, the architect delivered his plans to his contractors: G-d communicated the Torah to man, imparting His vision of reality to those whom He had charged to implement it. Imagine, then, the workman who consults the original state of his materials rather than the architect’s plan. ‘‘The blueprint calls for a square plank,’’ he muses, ‘‘but the log I have is round. Perhaps we can edit the plans a little?’’ Why labor to change the world, if we can conform our moral vision to reflect it?
Skeptic: You know, I’ve noticed that we’re forever getting off the subject. We start talking about Moshiach, and we end up discussing anything but: good and evil, freedom and servitude, totalitarianism and pluralism, orthodoxy versus revisionism…
Believer: But all this is the subject. Moshiach is not a side issue but the sum total of everything the Jew believes in. That is why it is one of the thirteen ‘‘foundations’’ of Judaism. If life has meaning, it leads to Moshiach.
Skeptic: That’s quite an ‘‘if,’’ if you ask me.